Hiren Kumar Bose
It’s four in the morning and the entire Kumhar household, young and old wearing mining torches, are out in the field braving the early December chill nimbly plucking the blooming roses, wary of the wayward thorns. They are not alone, for the Chiwares, the Bhagwats, the Patils, the Pawars, the Mujawars, the Chowgules and the Chendkes—of Wadji, Maharashtra’s ‘rose village’—are there too, in their respective fields.
At the end of the two-hour-long toil of choosing flowers with buds that are just starting to open on erect perennial shrubs, the pickers leave the field, their bodies and clothes carrying a rich rose odour—as if bathed in its fragrance—of the garden rose variety, Rosa centifolia, known the world over for its heady scent. Garden roses are unlike hybrid roses which have a greater variety of colours but with hardly any smell.
The collected flowers are packed in bags, and men on bikes rush to make the 13km long trek on the Hyderabad-Mumbai highway (National Highway 65) to reach Solapur market to sell the produce. “The earlier you are in the market, the more you get to make. An extra Rs 5 or Rs 10 per kg,” says Balaji Venkatesh Kadam (42) who besides the one-acre devoted to roses grows bajra, wheat, maize, tur dal, vegetables, in the rest nine acres.
Preference for Rose
In the last 32 years, Wadji, a village made up of Marathas, Dhangar, Kumhar, Scheduled tribes and a handful of Muslim families, has emerged as the hub of rose growers and earned the sobriquet of ‘Rose Village.’ Interestingly, much before its farmers showed their likeness for roses it was a farmer in Pinjarvadi, 27 km from Solapur, who had been growing it without much success. However, credit is due to the 340 families of Wadaji for making desi roses a commercial crop.
Most families here have an acre or two dedicated to roses, a year-long flowering crop while the rest is for growing crops and vegetables. Each acre yields between 10 kg to a quintal a day, depending on the nourishment the bushes receive. “Growing roses has ensured that each farmer makes anything between Rs 500 to Rs 2000 per day, depending on the yield,” informs Parameshwar Kumhar, a biotechnology postgraduate and chairman of Sri Khandoba Agro Producer Company Ltd. which has 382 farmers as members.
The FPC was formed in 2015 with assistance provided by ATMA (Agricultural Technology Management Agency. ATMA has also assisted it in acquiring skills to become organic farmers under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) and gaining organic certification from the Union Agriculture Ministry’s Participatory Guarantee Scheme (PGS) to 50 farmers. Under the World Bank funder Maharashtra Agriculture Competitiveness Project the FPC was gifted a vehicle valued at Rs 15 lakh for transportation of agricultural produce. “Having come together the farmers have gained much and are able to bargain for better rates for their produce and purchase of Agri inputs,” informs Vikram Phutane, assistant technology manager, ATMA, Solapur South Block.
Solapur, the city of festivities
Interestingly, Solapur—the name derived as it once comprised 16 villages— being a pilgrim centre of several faiths has contributed to the growing popularity of roses: for its among the things offered as Naivedya (offering to God). Bordering Karnataka and known for its Geographical Index chadars, Solapur is home to several temples, mosques, dargahs, Jain temples, samadhis etc. Its iconic temple, situated in the middle of a serene lake, is dedicated to Shri Siddheshwar, one of the six prophets of the Lingayat sect. Incidentally, the train which connects the city with Mumbai is named Siddheshwar Express.
Besides being a favourite among deities of Solapur, the flower is a must-offering by devotees in the temple of Lord Vithal and Goddess Rukmini (Phandharpur), a temple dedicated to Swami Samarth Maharaj (Akkalkot), and Shri Sant Damaji temple (Mangalwedha). Home to predominantly Maharashtrians and Kannada and Telegu speakers, the city of Solapur is never short of celebrations as locals say “bara mahi utsavachi ghai (12 months and in haste to celebrate festivals)”. And what better way to celebrate festivals than to include roses in the rituals?
Over the years roses have become an integral part of celebrations in Solapur so much that no wedding is considered complete without it, thanks to the initiative of farmer-brothers Parameshwar (40) and Kundlik Kumhar (31). A horticulture graduate, Kundlik informs, “It was sometime in 2012 that we came to know of a mass wedding of 200 couples to be held and urged the organizers to use rose as akshata (used to shower blessings to the newlyweds ) rather than rice. The organizers ended up saving six quintals of rice.” Ever since then, most weddings in the city have been including roses leading to its demand.
Some four villages in Solapur grow roses, spread on 400 acres, of which Wadji leads with 120 acres. Every day over 8 tonnes of roses are sold in the Solapur market, the rates ranging from Rs 70 to Rs 200 per kg, valued at Rs. 8 lakhs. Traders send between one to two tonnes of roses daily, packed in iceboxes, to Mumbai’s Dadar market. “It’s during the festivals and the wedding season that we are able to get a good price,” says Parameshwar, who also runs a farmer to consumer outlet in Solapur city within a gas station enclosure that sells organically grown vegetables, agro and wellness products. Incidentally, it was the only vegetable outlet open during the pandemic months.
Petals of Rosa C. (also known as cabbage rose) fall off early unlike hybrid roses and are rarely used to make garlands. Adding on, Phutane says, “We have submitted a project to Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth (MPKV), Rahuri to address this issue and if an intervention is found it would bring a better price to the growers.”
Roses flower throughout the year and are a heavy fertiliser feeder and Kundlik informs: “We give jiwamrit (made of cow urine and dung, water, lentil powder, jaggery and a handful of live soil) every fortnight. If we detect any symptoms of fungal attack, we use khatta taak (sour buttermilk). We can’t afford to use chemicals because we make food products from the petals.”
For 45 days in a year, between October and December, when pruning is performed, the rose bushes are rested. Grown in arid conditions, these roses acquire a dark hue in the summer months. It flowers profusely during the monsoon months, considered a market-lean season when prices drop drastically. “Unlike sugarcane which is the preferred crop among farmers with easy access to irrigation in this region, roses grow with minimal irrigation, mostly done with drip,” informs Phutane.
Flower That Has Ushered Prosperity
It has taken a couple of decades for roses to gain market acceptance and better prices for the growers. “I still remember when in the early Nineties the flowers were sold for Rs 20 a kg but now during the wedding season, Diwali and the Ganpati festival we are able to get Rs 200 a kg,” reminiscences Parameshwar. “Those were the times when growers had to bicycle to the market for two to three hours to reach but things have changed now.”
Like most agricultural produce, roses too happen to be victims of market dynamics. However, the farmers of Wadji have changed their adversity to their advantage, making value-added products. “When the prices drop drastically, we either use the petals to make Gulab jal (rose water) or Gulkand (from Persian gul (rose) or qand (sugar) a sweet preserve of rose petals. Soon we have plans to manufacture agarbattis too,” adds Kundlik showing me around the factory unit located in Wadji.
In recent years, rose fields have become agro-tourism spots with school children and housewives making a beeline to Kumhars fields. In March 2020, it hosted some 150 primary school children, school teachers and housewives on a single day. During the winter months, farmers here organise “Hurda parties’ ‘ wherein city dwellers are offered tender jowar (sorghum) stalks, known as hurda are roasted/barbecued and served along with curd, jaggery and mouth-watering garlic chutneys.
Growing roses have ushered in better times for the inhabitants of Wadji, making them lakhpatis. Gone are days when the uncertainty of vegetable prices ruled their lives. The success of rose farming has set a template that several farmers in Pune and Jalgaon are trying to replicate.
An edited version published villagesquare.in